NEW YORK -- Seven years ago, Mark Messier pulled off his Rangers sweater in a visiting locker room and ended his first tour of duty in New York without saying goodbye to a city that revered him.
Given a second chance, he didn't let that happen again.
Messier left the ice at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, showered with applause and cheers from teammates, family, friends, fans and even the Buffalo Sabres. The 4-3 loss was certainly the last game the Rangers captain will play this season, and possibly the final one of his 25-year NHL career.
"Many times I took a few gulps, but I think everybody is sick of me crying on national TV, so I was trying to hold it together the best I could," said Messier, who won't play Saturday in the season finale at Washington.
Back in 1997, Messier and the Rangers were eliminated from the playoffs in Philadelphia. It was the last time New York reached the postseason and the last game he and Wayne Gretzky would play together.
The two former Edmonton Oilers stars have always been linked whether on the ice or in the record book.
But the second time around turned out to be just a one-year partnership as Messier left the Rangers for Vancouver as a free agent following that surprising run with Gretzky to the Eastern Conference finals.
It seemed impossible then that Messier could play anywhere else. Sure he'd won five Stanley Cup championships in Edmonton - four with Gretzky - before he was traded to New York in 1991 and instantly became the captain.
But the one title he captured with the Rangers three years later was, in the opinion of New Yorkers, so much more important than the handful of rings he earned with the Oilers.
He promised that the Rangers would win their first championship in 54 years, and then practically willed, rallying them against New Jersey in the heart-stopping conference finals.
The Rangers then beat Vancouver in the Stanley Cup finals and from that moment on, Messier was not only a New York Ranger, he was THE New York Ranger.
"I will go to my grave with feelings and emotions from 1994," he said. "Being born in Edmonton and winning a Stanley Cup in Edmonton and knowing what it means to the people and the relationships that athletes have to have with the people in the city and how important that is.
"To experience that again here in New York, that's what to me is some of the most important things in becoming a champion."
When Glen Sather, the architect of the Oilers' dynasty, took over as Rangers GM in 2000 he brought Messier back after a three-year absence.
Messier's second tour with the Rangers never came close to producing the success he had a decade earlier. In four seasons back on Broadway, Messier reached milestones but never made the playoffs.
If this is the end, and the 43-year-old Messier was noncommittal Wednesday night, then he will retire as the NHL's second-leading scorer with 1,887 points - trailing only Gretzky. The Great One still wasn't far away Wednesday, giving Messier a call as he left the ice following warmups.
"To try and fit in 25 years and all of the great moments into one night or one afternoon is a little tough," said Messier, the only player to captain two franchises to the Stanley Cup.
Messier scored his 694th goal in his 1,756th game - 698 with the Rangers - played in front of his family, former teammate Mike Richter, and relatives of close friend Brian Leetch. Messier's teenage son, Lyon, was on the bench for the third period but Leetch was absent. That is partly why this might be it for Messier, even though he had 18 goals this season.
Because the Rangers couldn't make the playoffs with the league's highest payroll, a trading deadline sell-off stripped the team of most veterans - including Leetch who was dealt to Toronto after 17 seasons.
Without a realistic chance to win a championship in New York, and not playing with Leetch, Messier is leaning toward retirement. Being six goals away from becoming the seventh player with 700 and 12 games short of Gordie Howe's record is probably not enough motivation to bring him back.
"I'll be here in New York no matter what," Messier said. "I've been a perfect fit since I've come here."
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